Objective: Varicella-zoster (VZV) infection is an occupational hazard for health care workers. The "gold standard" for assessing protection is a positive antibody titer. We present a case of persistent serologic non-responsiveness following VZV immunization and discuss a management strategy.
Methods: A 29-year-old woman, immunocompetent pediatric resident was repeatedly removed from her clinical duties because of a negative history of chicken pox and the absence of a VZV antibody titer. She received a total of three doses of the VZV vaccine and continued to have a negative antibody titer as measured by a commercial ELISA assay (Wampole). Subsequently, she had three direct contacts with infectious children and did not develop clinical chicken pox.
Results: A lymphocyte proliferation assay was performed using inactivated varicella vaccine and tetanus antigens. The patient's varicella and tetanus stimulation index (SI) were 46.5 and 42, respectively. The SI for the positive control (a patient recently recovered from a wild type infection) were 144 (varicella specific), and 114 (tetanus). The SI secondary to VZV antigens reported in the literature is 30.5 +/- 9.1. We reassessed the varicella antibody titer using more sensitive assays: fluorescent antibody to membrane antigen and latex agglutination. Both tests verified the presence of VZV specific IgG at a titer of 1:8 in our patient.
Conclusion: This case illustrates that in a subgroup of individuals the antibody response to VZV vaccine may be low despite an adequate cell-mediated response. Commercial VZV ELISA assays were designed to measure higher titers associated with natural infection rather than the lower titer induced by the vaccine. Repeated immunizations plus more sensitive measures of VZV-specific IgG should be used to validate protection rather than the current commonly utilized ELISA screening. Clinicians should be aware of the variability in VZV-specific antibody assays when assessing post VZV vaccine titers prior to determining protection in health care workers.